At 5:30, Kouhei is already done packing his tent and sitting on the bench. Why does he have to be so Japanese (early) ?!
No matter. I roll out of Aurelie’s tent inhale the morning dew on the grass. Despite an initially sleepless night, it was one of the best sleeps I’ve had.
Aurelie was right – the grass was more comfortable than the bench I originally chose. It was a valiant effort to set up a lopsided tent, but the higher elevation was chillier than expected, making it difficult to sleep. Then, I heard persistent rummaging noises in the darkness close to my head. Rather than get irritated at me for causing a stir over a cat we eventually found, Aurelie invited me to sleep in her tent. ‘I know what it means to feel afraid.’
Now, the morning blues. The overnight moisture has seeped into in everything, making me reluctant to pack. Kouhei returns with vending machine iced coffee since he’s ready and we’re barely awake. Aurelie didn’t sleep well, but still packs quickly.
When they’re both standing with their backpacks watching me, I sigh in exasperation. ‘Why does it seem like I’m always the slowest?’
‘You are,’ Aurelie says briskly. ‘But it’s fine.’
My gratitude goes a bit sour. Reminding myself it’s a cultural thing doesn’t take the sting away.
As Kouhei and Aurelie march on ahead, I drop behind, trying to take photos of the breathtaking morning sun. It creates a comfortable distance to keep my own company.
Am I just too sensitive? Or is it justified to expect people to have sensitivity irrespective of culture? Why do words carelessly spoken have so much impact? Did I imagine her tone?
Anyhow, we are walking to Negoro-ji, the temple I ran and hitchhiked to yesterday evening. This time, we follow the henro-no-michi arrows pointing into a forest path. It’s as muddy as yesterday’s, but we come across a surprise: a newly built henro hut.
We continue on to the temple, and I wait for them to do their prayers. When we finish, Kouhei presents Aurelie and me a charm each.
I’m touched, but I can’t help but interpret it. The henro-no-michi is banal and intense. In the vast stretches of nothingness, boredom, and solitude, life is distilled until the most basic things take on significance. We become hypersensitive to our surroundings, constantly overwhelmed by our unfiltered reactions. I think he’s trying to express his gratitude for having company, which we all of us feel. I think his background will compel him to continue to watch over us, to worry, to give. I don’t want his gratitude to become a burden. It’s mutual: we’re supporting each other.
When we pass by the new henro hut again, there’s a man filling a tea dispenser on the picnic table. What’s this? He says it’s o-settai provided by a nearby cafe.
We help ourselves to the drinks and snacks and check out the new structure. Inside is a jaw-dropping carpeted space with electricity and a loft. Elementary school students have left their drawings for us to take, and the place already has a small collection of osamefuda, figures, notes. We missed out because I skipped on this forest path last night. Thankfully we had yesterday’s breathtaking sunset.
I continue trailing the whole morning as we descend from the plateau into Takamatsu City, capital of Sanuki udon. Sanuki is the old name for Kagawa Prefecture. Kouhei and Aurelie naturally walk ahead and wait until they see me around a bend. It’s good motivation to keep me at a productive pace.
The distance lets me continue meditating. Having Kouhei yesterday already introduced a whole set of experiences, adding Aurelie exponentially multiplies the dynamics. People flood our system with stimuli, and it’s difficult to curb the raw reactions that are harmless in our solitary walks. After learning to dissolve my sense of self on the henro-no-michi, it’s jolted into re-condensing, forming a boundary of me and them.
I examine the resentment lodged in my mind and find that it has roots. In a bed of silence, the weed had patiently sprouted. I didn’t notice when we were resting more than I normally would. I ignored it when Kouhei and I dug took the lead in researching nojuku spots and bookings. A promise to meet casually forgotten weeks ago prepared the soil, and a following desperate request finally planted the seed. The recent remarks just brought all of this to light.
Aurelie has done quite well. She’s the youngest in a large family and has always been surrounded by love. She’s walking a foreign country without an understanding of the language or culture. While walking down today, she shares her sobering last days in Shishikui where cultural gaps caused a rift. She was cast back out into the henro-no-michi she had taken refuge from for a month, one that exposes each of our flaws and weaknesses.
She glances at Kouhei, who’s out of earshot and says that while he seems calm, he has a heavy heart. ‘I can tell from how much he smokes.’
We’ve walked over a mile in each other’s shoes. Does that give us right to judge?
On this path we’ve taken, her weakness is making judgements without an appreciation of cultural context. Mine is responding to judgement with judgement.
We’re at a Lawson at the edge of town having a late breakfast. I use Airbnb to book a place for Kouhei and Aurelie. Neither of them know what it is, but Aurelie was thinking of a 24-hour manga cafe and Kouhei had no plans. Both like the idea of affordable accommodation close to Temple 73 and a tram line. In addition, I want to confirm that Edvaldo is alright. It takes an hour, and the suffocating city heat has returned.
By the time I confirm their booking and apologise for the wait, Aurelie concedes, ‘I don’t mind waiting, especially if you’re helping us get a place to stay. With your phone.’
The emphasis isn’t lost.
With that we continue to Ichinomiya-ji. Perhaps if we’re lucky, today we can get to Temple 84 too.
It’s a spiritless walk in the city heat. I don’t know how Kouhei manages in his long sleeves and pants. I’m just glad to have company through this.
Aurelie is in high spirits and keeps ahead while Kouhei accompanies me lagging behind. My leg is beginning to bother me again, but he distracts me by entertaining a variety of topics and teaching me new vocabulary.
When we arrive at the temple, I bolt to the washroom. Something was wrong with that chicken earlier. After a bit, I re-emerge a little paler, but with a restored digestive tract.
I do my ritual rounds since Aurelie and Kouhei finished earlier and are waiting in the shade. Then, I head to a nearby Lawson to get their AirBnB confirmation, marking an udon shop on the way for lunch. However, my grand plans for Sanuki udon sampling evaporate as another hour evaporates with flat-searching. We follow the owner’s video description at his insistence, which results in Kouhei getting lost, and then them losing me around a corner. Sigh.
Nonetheless, we arrive. Aurelie does laundry, I shower, and Kouhei snacks. All the long delays have added up, and it’s getting late. We cut the sitting short and head out again to hit the last temple for today. Those two have left their bags in the flat, but I keep mine to take to my Couchsurfing place, which I’d found weeks ago.
Aurelie offers to take my bag, which I’m grateful for. It’s light for her, but the source of my leg muscle strains. In addition, it’s a daypack and has no shoulder padding.
Our walk across the length of Takamatsu is a truly bland, straight, expanse of concrete. When we finally see a konbini, we stop for a late lunch. Due to a misunderstanding, we keep waiting for each other until Kouhei comes to me with alarm and says,’Can you finish in 5 minutes? We won’t have enough time.’
Sigh, I’d gotten the ice cream while waiting, but I can eat and walk! Soon after we resume, my limp drags them down far too much. Eventually, Kouhei asks, ‘Are you okay?’
Before I can respond, ‘No! Not daijoubu!’ Aurelie exclaims with a mix of concern, fatigue, and frustration.
Kouhei hides his startled look when he turns quickly from her to me. He would have felt bad enough without that.
I tell them to go on ahead as they may still make it at their natural pace, and I’m not staying with them tonight anyway. I’ll find my lodging and we’ll arrange to meet up tomorrow, or two days from now. I have Kouhei’s Line account.
With that, I limp to the closest station and wait 45 minutes for the train. Just being able to sit down, take my shoes off, and charge my dying phone is enough. I just want to sleep. I can’t muster the energy to be sociable when I hear my name echo in waiting area. Aurelie grins and waves. She asks me for the route back and I tell her the tram is at another station. She could transfer here, but the tram is cheaper and more frequent than the train. She finally realises I want to be alone and heads out.
After I arrive, at my host’s century-old house, I don’t have the energy to go back out again for food. It’s close to the station and I followed her instructions to let myself in the unlocked door.
It’s old and still in the middle of refurbishment. The empty to-be-kitchen has a new plastic flooring, one running tap, and painted walls. The old wooden floor planks in the rest of the house are loose, with gaping holes. A few giant spiders have made homes in my room with its old sofa set and futons. The tiled shower area has an ancient wooden tub-bath and a modern draw curtain for privacy. I open all the windows to let out the trapped heat and see a spectacular evening sun hovering over the city. No wonder this single mother bought this place.
When I’m done showering and washing my shirt, I lay out the futon to sleep, even though the sun hasn’t even set. I will survive on the energy drink I had earlier. If I’m really hungry, I can go for midnight udon because Takamatsu is the city for 24-hour, authentic, Sanuki udon. My host even has a colour-coded udon map segmented by business hours.
Before I can pass out, my host gets back. She knocks and comes in with her daughter, and shows me the various appliances around the house, scattered where the working outlets are. I can check off quirky house-under-renovation as a life experience.
This wasn’t quite what I’d expected, but then, where any of the other places? I wonder if Kouhei made it in the end. Maybe I should’ve stayed with them. Maybe not. Time will tell.